The Cable Guys

The Cable Guys
James Bennet

Before you decide whether to seek the Presidency of these United States on the Reform Party ticket — and they say they are interested if you are — there are some things you should know. The party’s leftists are recruiting an anti-abortion, anti-immigration creationist, Pat Buchanan, as their champion. The party’s centrists — the heirs of prairie populism, with its dirty fingernails and rage at Eastern elites — are eyeing a New York developer, Donald Trump, who made his fortune castling the rich and beating poorer people at games of chance. The party’s most popular leader, Jesse Ventura, has contempt for one of its founding goals — and some of the potential candidates are not precisely sure what those are, anyway.

You should probably also know that it is not the best oiled of political machines. This year’s national convention ended when the party’s lease expired on a small ballroom at the Hyatt in Dearborn, Mich., and the battle-weary delegates — drained by fights over whether to drop the word ”paperless” from the platform or to change ”government reform” to ”political reform” — got the boot.

You should definitely know that all this, to many Reform Party members, is good news — evidence of ferment and outsider vigor.

But why dwell on those positives? Consider these: the party has a prize of $12.6 million in taxpayers’ money to bestow on whoever wins its nomination. It has a terrier’s grip on some issues, like campaign-finance reform, whose time always seems to be coming and — who knows? — might even arrive next year. And it has some bright, idealistic, hard-working members who want to awaken indifferent or cynical Americans to their power and possibilities as citizens.

You should know, in short, that the Reform Party on the national level is at a fork, with a chance to forge into the mainstream of American politics and invigorate next year’s Presidential contest or — more likely at the moment, sad to say — drift off to what a certain jug-eared Texan has in another context called ”loo-loo land.”

Which fate lies in what direction is anyone’s guess, and there is no shortage of hands lunging for the tiller. ”The party’s not that sophisticated — yet,” confided Hoppy Heidelberg, a member of the Oklahoma delegation to the convention, which was held in July. Heidelberg, who was thrown off the grand jury investigating the Oklahoma City bombing for pursuing his own suspects (”Middle Easterners on contract to the C.I.A.”), glimpsed signs of an emerging sophistication. ”In time,” he predicted, ”you will see planks in our platform to get rid of the U.N. and the Federal Reserve.”

To realize his vision, Heidelberg will have to contend with the likes of Dan Plyler, an earnest, goateed young man from Morehead, Ky., who is bent on legalizing hemp for industrial purposes and marijuana for medical ones. ”I view this party as a hunk of clay that’s been thrown in front of us,” Plyler said at the back of the convention hall.

I heard much the same thought about the party’s malleability expressed just a few weeks ago as I patted Gipper the cat and listened in on the kitchen extension while Pat Buchanan, from his living room, conducted yet another of his spirited talk-radio interviews, this one with a station in St. Louis. The hosts adored Buchanan, but feared for him if he began associating with the likes of Gov. Jesse Ventura, who in an interview with Playboy called organized religion ”a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people.”

”The views and values and beliefs of Pat Buchanan would, if taken into the Reform Party, become the views and values of the Reform Party nominee, and very probably of the Reform Party itself,” Buchanan reassured them. He would be, he continued in his urgent, husky tones, ”the most pro-life, traditionalist, conservative, America First nominee in the entire race!”

Other potential Reform candidates likewise sound more interested in capitalizing on the party than building it up. ”You know, I hate to say I’m the king of New York,” Donald J. Trump told me, as he explained why he would run only if convinced he would win the Presidency, ”but I am. And I’m not looking to sort of say, ‘Let’s go out, work my [expletive] off for a year, and in the end, I’ll get more votes than any third-party candidate in history, and isn’t that wonderful.’ And what do you have? You have nothing. You have a little asterisk alongside of your name. You got more votes than anybody else thus far. But what good does it do you?”

That evening, when I pressed the point beneath the gamboling sprites on his living-room ceiling, Trump conceded: ”It would do them a lot of good. It wouldn’t do me a lot of good.”

Within the party, Reformers speak of a split between ”Dallas,” meaning Ross Perot’s people, and ”Minnesota,” meaning the group led by Ventura. That is geographic shorthand for a struggle over philosophy and power. For behind the vivid personalities and the dark if antic intrigue, real ideas are at work here, starkly different visions of individual rights, government responsibilities and foreign policy. The Democrats and Republicans have for years been divided over some of the same issues, including trade and abortion, and as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton proved, a strong candidate can unify and redirect even an established party. But the Reformers are particularly bereft of adult supervision now that Perot, the founder, has at least temporarily left the sandbox. Further, among Reformers, the policy disputes are personal and are more likely to fragment the party because it has almost no history or grass-roots infrastructure to hold it together.

The eventual nominee will have to reconcile the clashing personalities and ideas or else build a new Reform Party around one set of them. That intramural feat accomplished, the candidate would have the chance to do some good. The end of the cold war and the humming economy have lowered the perceived stakes of the Presidency. Bill Clinton has proven its potential entertainment value. And now that the MTV generation has come of age, the popular culture can serve as a political base much the way Texas or Tennessee does. Mostly because of the Reform Party, there is an inspiring sense suddenly that any boy can be President (and you probably are better off being a boy in this testosterone-charged outfit).

People keep talking as if all that’s a bad thing. ”It’s almost the late empire,” Buchanan said darkly. ”I think we are an unserious people in an unserious time.” But somber sound-bite politics is not a roaring success, considering that only 49 percent of the voting-age population bothered to cast a ballot in the last Presidential election and only 36 percent did in 1998. For all their grim-faced speechifying, the Democrats and Republicans are as antsy to avoid matters of substance as the Reformers are slapdash in taking them on. The Reform candidate could capitalize on the upside of the party’s zaniness — its insurgent sensibility and its reach beyond the nightly news to media outlets like ”Access Hollywood” — to stimulate people for whom voting is as irrelevant and unsexy as they find most major-party candidates. That candidate could force the Democrats and Republicans to become more rollicking and more serious at the same time, to broaden their appeal and to get specific about issues like securing Medicare. That candidate could even win. Theoretically.

After handicapping the potential field, Ventura, let out a deep sigh when asked if another candidate might be out there. His enormous hands dropped into his lap and his foghorn voice softened. ”I don’t know,” he told me. ”See, that’s the tearing that I have inside myself. I know I should be the candidate.” He paused. ”But what do I do? I’m between a rock and a hard place.” He did not want the job, he said, and he would not break his commitment to serve his full term as Governor.

There are some other possible candidates, at least in the dreams of party members. But Warren Beatty insists he wants to save the Democrats’ soul, not mold the Reformers’, though he has equivocated just enough to keep some members hoping. Lowell P. Weicker Jr., the former Republican Senator and Independent Governor of Connecticut, says he might run, but only as the candidate of a Reform Party splinter group. (Oh, yes, there is one.) ”Circus,” spat Weicker, who has been wooed as a candidate by Ventura, when asked what image the Reform Party is projecting. Then for 11 seconds he sat silently, shifting slightly in his chair, before bursting forth with: ”Nuts! I mean, it just is — circus, nuts.”

Jack Gargan, a gentlemanly, fittingly big-eared Reformer who was elected party chairman with Ventura’s backing at Dearborn, has encountered so much infighting that he is already referring to himself as the ”embattled chairman-elect.” When I caught up with him earlier this month at a convention in Washington of that splinter group, the American Reform Party, he predicted that none of the names bandied so far would ultimately grace the Reform Party ticket.

”I couldn’t even begin,” he began, when asked to describe the prince who will come. Then his droopy, hangdog expression lifted itself into a grin. ”All of a sudden, somebody will be there, and we’ll say, ‘Geez, why didn’t we think of him or her?’ You know, it’s going to seem — Wow!’ — a revelation.”

Could it be you? Don’t let Jack Gargan down. At least consider your competition.

Ruddy, jowly and wry, Patrick Joseph Buchanan strode into the green room at CNN one afternoon in late September and held out his hand to Skip Smith, the makeup man for his former shout show, ”Crossfire.” ”Skipper,” he declared, ”I’m in trouble again.” Smith knew all about it. That day, Senator John McCain had attacked Buchanan over his new book, ”A Republic, Not an Empire,” in which he argues that Hitler was provoked by the Allies into attacking the West. The first Presidential candidate in half a century to campaign on his vision for conducting World War II, Buchanan, who is 60, was preparing to spend his afternoon fighting the last war in an appearance on the CNN show ”Talk Back Live,” followed by other radio and television chats. It was going to be a hard day.

Buchanan, who travels with his own television earpiece, understands the news media as well as any candidate. Rather than merely shaking hands, he has always campaigned more by snatching ”free media” — showing up at dawn at local television stations, for example, to offer himself to content-starved morning shows. That is part of his attraction for the Reform Party, where publicity has substituted for the traditional work of grass-roots organizing. Reformers like to call their outfit a ”cyberparty,” since it lacks a bricks-and-mortar national headquarters. But it is even more of a cable party. Just as the Reform Party was trying to squeeze in between the Democrats and Republicans, cable news was coming of age as a competitor to the networks. The needs of cable and the party were reciprocal, and they have complemented each other ever since Perot chose the CNN show ”Larry King Live” to announce his first Presidential candidacy. This year, a compliant news media stands ready to embrace anyone who might enliven the Presidential race, as Buchanan certainly would.

”Just the possibility of him running has so dominated public discussion that the Reform Party has become equal in people’s minds to the Republican Party and Democratic Party,” crowed Pat Choate, the author and 1996 Reform Party Vice Presidential candidate. That Buchanan has come under fire has made him only more popular with some Reformers, who argue that Perot, too, was cruelly caricatured as soon as he became a threat.

Choate is part of an influential group of Reformers who contend that theirs should be a ”nonideological” political party, with Buchanan in the lead. Their theory is part good-government idealism, part desperation move. First part: the political process is so corrupt that there is no point in debating issues like abortion until the system is fixed through campaign-finance reform, same-day voter registration and increased use of referendums and initiatives. Second part: Reformers can agree on nothing except the need for campaign-finance reform, same-day voter registration and increased use of referendums and initiatives. If the nonideological faction carries its ideas into practice, the result would be a strange meta-campaign — a sort of campaign about campaigning, to build a party devoted to encouraging more parties, with the idea of fostering ideas.

But that will probably not happen. Ideology has a way of asserting itself, particularly when the putative nonideologue is Pat Buchanan. Before a picture of the United States Capitol, he sat alone in a booth and fielded questions from the ”Talk Back Live” audience in Atlanta. Characteristically direct, he answered when asked if he would appoint ”moral degenerates” as ambassadors. (No, because such people wouldn’t support his candidacy.) When one woman told him she could imagine ”nothing in the world worse” than a ”young girl” forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term, he replied evenly: ”I respectfully disagree. I think there is something worse, and that’s a dead baby.”

Buchanan emerged from his booth looking pleased. The questions had been mostly softballs. ”That’s 700,000 homes, maybe a million,” he said of the television audience. ”As Nixon would say, that’s a rally.” His next stop was a CNN conference room. There, leaning over a telephone and karate-chopping the air, he conducted back-to-back drive-time radio interviews in Boston and Baltimore, insisting that he believed Hitler was an ”evil monster” and urging people to read his book.

In an interview, Buchanan smiled when I asked whether he would run a ”nonideological” campaign if he ultimately chose to abandon the Republicans for the Reformers. He said that the theory might be mere semantics. But he suggested that he would not have to emphasize social issues, because his positions were known and because Federal social policy was minimal, ”with the exception of right to life and overturning the Supreme Court.”

Such whopping exceptions notwithstanding, this attempt at nonideology has paved the way for one of the strangest political alliances in recent memory, between Buchanan and two increasingly powerful members of the Reform Party, Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani, who have come to dominate the New York branch of the party. By their supporters, Newman, a psychotherapist with shoulder-length silver hair, and Fulani, a two-time Presidential candidate of the former New Alliance Party, are considered visionaries. By their critics, they are considered cultists and anti-Semites, charges that they call smears.

There is no gainsaying their strength within the Reform Party, and rather than ally predictably with one camp, they have shifted their support from Dallas to Minnesota and back again. Unlike most Reformers, their followers vote reliably in a bloc, and Fulani was almost elected vice chairman of the party at the Dearborn convention. Her support was crucial to Gargan’s victory as chairman. Talking with the two of them in their lower Manhattan office, it was hard to escape a sense that the embryonic alliance with Buchanan was one of convenience, for they have little thought that he might actually win the Presidency. In fact, they don’t want him to.

”We’re hoping he gets 10 to 15 percent of the vote,” Fulani said. That result, Newman said, ”keeps the dollars coming in, and it keeps us as America’s major minor party.” If the Reform nominee gets 5 percent of the vote in 2000, the party will be entitled to Federal money for the next Presidential election; if the nominee cracks 25 percent, it will achieve the grail of ”major party status” and get as much money as the Democrats and Republicans. And if Buchanan actually won by selling the country on his brand of conservatism? ”Then,” Newman said, ”we’re all in trouble.”

With his radio interviews done, Buchanan had called his office and begun dictating a response to McCain when CNN’s ”Inside Politics” bloomed on the television screen in the corner of the conference room. The sound was turned down, but Buchanan kept his widening eyes on the screen, and as the images of himself gave way to ones of goose-stepping soldiers, he began a stunned running commentary. ”Oh, my goodness, they got Hitler’s guys here, and Stalin,” he said in a hushed voice. ”My goodness, they’ve got this huge thing on all the camps and stuff.” After a long silence, he angrily declared that it was ”a hatchet job” on his book. ”This is a CNN special, it’s quite clear.”

He dashed downstairs to ”Crossfire,” commandeered an office and began mounting a counterattack on his old network from within his old network. ”We’re getting hammered, but I think we can do it if we hang in there,” he comforted his wife, Shelley, over the telephone. He dictated and repeatedly revised statements to his aides, who evidently lacked his grasp of World War II landings. (”Anzio,” he rasped into the phone. ”A-N-Z-I-O.”) Buchanan angrily rejected an offer by a penitent CNN to respond on the air right away, opting instead to take his business to its rival MSNBC, where he would end his day in a shouting match with the historian Stephen E. Ambrose.

Before he left, his good humor restored as always by a fight, he stuck his head into the office of a conservative journalist and ”Crossfire” guest, Tucker Carlson. ”Lenora Fulani says hello,” he said.

‘I built that one, and two or three more over there,” Donald Trump was saying, Manhattan at his feet as he pointed north and west from the first floor of his apartment, the 66th floor of Trump Tower. He nodded across the street. ”And, of course, I bought the General Motors Building. That’s pretty great, to own the General Motors Building.”

He guided me across the dining room to a model of a tower as he mulled the sacrifices he would have to make to be President. ”For Lowell Weicker and Pat Buchanan, there is no decision,” he said dismissively. ”It’s an easy one. I’m the biggest developer in the city, by far, so for me it’s a big step. Compare this to Washington.” The flick of his hand encompassed the apartment — with its bulletproof blinds, its blue onyx bathroom, its inches-thick gilt double-doors — as he gave me an appraising look. ”You understand.”

Indeed, it is hard to understand why Trump, 53, would run for President, though it is easy enough to understand why he would toy with the idea. There is little downside to considering it; he has a book coming out this winter, and reporters are pounding on his door. Trump said he would get in the race if he believed he would do a better job than the other candidates, and if he believed he would win. But at times it sounded as if the appeal of the race was similar to the challenge that he said led him to dream up this apartment: ”I really did this to see if it could be done.”

Trump is emerging as the candidate of the Minnesota wing of the party, led by Ventura. Ventura has been casting about for someone who can beat Buchanan, whose social views he regards as out of step with the Reform Party. ”He seems to represent the far-reaching right, which is not what the Reform Party is about, at least in my view of it,” Ventura said. When I asked if he would leave the Reformers if Buchanan became the nominee, he said, ”I’d have a hard time supporting him, unless Mr. Buchanan can sit down with me and in some manner change my perspective of what he stands for.”

Ventura has known Trump since his days as Jesse the Body, when he wrestled in a Trump casino. The two have spoken several times about a possible race. While Trump, like Buchanan a registered Republican, told me that Ventura ”loved the idea of Trump doing it,” Ventura insisted that he was merely ”intrigued.” But he repeatedly cited what he considered Trump’s virtues as a candidate. ”He’s a job maker, he’s an entrepreneur,” he said. By contrast, he said of Buchanan, ”this guy has never really had a real job, has he?”

Ventura said that he had read advance excerpts of Trump’s book and found that their philosophies were similar. Yet Trump’s philosophy is hard to pin down. While Reformers regard the campaign-finance system as the evil beneath all evils, the rot corrupting all, Trump told me, ”I love campaign-finance laws, because to be honest with you, I’m restricted to giving $1,000 per candidate.” There was no question, he said, that donations bought political favor, but ”a lot of times, favor is a positive thing.” He suggested that the limits might be too low, since they were set two decades ago and have not been adjusted for inflation: ”When I have a United States senator who gets on a plane and flies to New York in order to have a meeting with me, in order to get a thousand-dollar contribution, I say to myself, Isn’t that a sad thing?” He says that complete disclosure of donations is more important than limits on them.

Trump seems more comfortable with an interventionist government than Ventura, who has a deep libertarian streak. Trump does not drink or smoke because of the urging and example of an older brother, Fred, who died an alcoholic. He hailed lawsuits against the tobacco companies. ”And I can’t believe, with all the lawyers, with all the scoundrel lawyers that we have in this country, that nobody’s attacked the companies that produce all of the alcoholic beverages, because I think that they cause far more damage,” he continued. ”As part of an agenda, I’d actually do that. Of course, now I just lost a lot of political contributions” — he grinned and shrugged — but the nice part about me is, I don’t need ’em.”

That is a paradoxical element of his draw for the Reform Party, which, in essence, is a self-styled populist movement founded by a billionaire. Though it is out to change the campaign-finance system, the Reform Party is a creature of it. It would not exist if candidates could not spend unlimited amounts of their own money to get themselves elected. The belief of Reformers is not that all money corrupts, but that other people’s money does. In fact, the more money someone has, the less corruptible and the more appealing he is. Conversely, it is a bad thing for a candidate to be poor. When I suggested to Ventura that some potential candidates might be more interested in the party’s Federal money than its cause, he said: ”There’s one thing at least about Trump, is he don’t need it, per se. I mean, he’s not going to be the opportunist who’s the poor man standing out there, can’t finance anything for himself.”

Combined with Trump’s great wealth, his aversion to handshaking, which he considers barbaric, would seem at first glance to pose a problem for a populist candidate. As we drove between events one evening in his limousine, he pulled open a cabinet beneath the seat and offered me a Super Sani-Cloth germicidal disposable wipe. ”What’s really tough,” he explained, as we separately wiped away and an antiseptic fragrance filled the car, ”is when you’re at dinner eating a roll and some guy comes out of the bathroom and says, ‘It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Trump,’ and sticks his hand out.”

Yet the truth is that Trump can backslap with the best of them. His appeal is undeniable, if not easy to explain. Trump, not an ostentatiously introspective man, declined to analyze it. ”Whatever it is,” he said, ”it is.” Trump boosts ratings when he appears on television, and when he appears in public, people flock to him. They laugh with him, not at him, though the strange thing is that Trump himself is not laughing. He emerged from his limousine at a benefit in East Harlem and waded into a delighted crowd. As they surged toward him, people joked about seeking an ambassadorship or pleaded for a picture. Over his shoulder, he asked me, ”Think this happens to Pat Buchanan?”

And what an extraordinary crowd it was — at least according to Trump. One man was the ”biggest man on Wall Street” and the next the ”greatest producer in the history of Broadway.” Each glowed as Trump turned the spotlight of his attention on them. ”Regis,” he declared, ”has the No. 1 morning show and the No. 1 evening show.”

Seated at Trump’s round table, Regis Philbin leaned over and asked if I would write that he was considering joining his friend on the ticket. ”I’m thinking of throwing my hat in the ring,” he declared in his brassy voice. ”I could pull him through. I could make him President! Hell, who needs him? I could be President!”

And why not? It does suddenly seem as if Regis Philbin could reach the Oval Office, or at least credibly run for it.

”There are signs that our political culture is changing in a very dramatic way, and I think again about Jesse Ventura,” said Frank Sorauf, an expert on American political parties who is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Minnesota. ”Really, what Jesse Ventura represents is the pop culturization of our politics. Jesse Ventura is a series of icons from the pop culture: wrestling, the in-your-face attitude, the radio talk show, the outrageous behavior — this is all out of ‘The Simpsons,’ out of World Federation Wrestling. It’s all out of the media. An increasing number of young people view society, including our politics, through the eyes of popular culture.”

What is untested on the national level is whether pop-culture politicians understand something about voters or just about the news media. It was an odd thing, recently, to watch George Stephanopoulos, notebook in hand, interviewing Dustin Hoffman about politics in the ballroom of the Beverly Hilton. It was an odd thing to find myself joining a pack of reporters in questioning Jack Nicholson about a prospective candidate’s prospects.

”Mad-dog Beatty loves to win,” Nicholson wheezed, with that grin from ”The Shining.” He argued that the proliferation of cable channels and the Internet enhanced his friend’s chances, because ”you can communicate more easily.” Behind his purple shades, he was hunting through the gloom for his girlfriend, Lara Flynn Boyle.

Everyone who had come to hear Warren Beatty address the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action was in on the joke, except that no one was quite sure that it actually was a joke. The audience was winking at his coyness and applauding his bravery at the same time, while journalists — 150 of them, from as far away as Japan — were mocking the scene’s importance and transmitting it around the globe. And Beatty, acutely conscious of the balance between ironic detachment and yearning for credulousness in his public and the press, played his role to the hilt. He acknowledged that it was spillover from the worship of celebrity that gave him his platform while taking full advantage of that platform to mock his party’s candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Bill Bradley, the former Senator.

The sight of paparazzi pressing against rope lines as entertainment television covered a political event was quite appealing. It was reminiscent of a list of calls from the media that Trump handed me for one day, Sept. 14. The list contained 36 messages in all, and among the usual suspects, like ”Crossfire,” Minnesota Public Radio and The New York Times, were less politically oriented organizations, like ”Access Hollywood,” ”Inside Edition” and ”Roseanne.” If a candidate wants to excite people who normally do not vote, reaching past ”Meet the Press” is probably not a bad way to start.

Yet the exercise at the Beverly Hilton felt fundamentally fraudulent. After delivering a passionate, detailed critique of globalism, the economic recovery and the campaign-finance system, Beatty capped his speech with an appeal to a ”drum majorette” who found herself famous enough to influence policy. Despite the ”moneyed, honeyed voices of ridicule and reaction,” he urged her to speak up: ”Let them call you coy.”

This was a clever piece of pre-emptive rhetoric, which managed to morph Beatty’s coyness from an act of self-indulgence into one of courage. But, in fact, it does not take much courage to be coy and manipulate the press — certainly nothing compared with the courage it takes to stand for office and risk the rejection of a nation. In that department, Al Gore and Bill Bradley thus far have Beatty beat, hands down.

It was impossible not to wonder why, if Beatty truly cared so deeply about child poverty and income inequality, the facts that he loved ”making movies” and was married to ”the most breathtaking woman on the planet” would prevent him, as he suggested, from running for office to right such wrongs. Another question — why the press would nevertheless take him so seriously — is more easily answered. It is the same reason we pay so much attention to potential Reform Party candidates before they have committed to campaigning. ”The news media as an interest group have an interest in confecting a horse race,” said Nelson W. Polsby, a professor of political science at U.C. Berkeley.

There is nothing coy about Jesse Ventura. Given the amalgam of paradoxes that is the Reform Party, it is fitting that its most authentic leader would be a former pro wrestler who named his memoir for a line he uttered as a movie actor (”I ain’t got time to bleed”). In his book, Ventura, who is 48, calls himself ”basically an entertainer” and says of his victory last year, ”The bottom line is that my opponents were boring.” Yet he does not seem to be putting on a show — at least not only putting on a show. He seems, in fact, to be honest to a fault.

Ventura makes no effort to hide his love for ”The Young and the Restless.” He threatens to closet recalcitrant lawmakers with his famously flatulent bulldog, Franklin. Asked about his musical taste recently, he described himself as ”more Led Zeppelinish.” For all his overbearing self-assurance, he likes to poke fun at himself slyly. He said of Donald Trump, ”He’s — excuse the pun, and I hate to use it in this interview — he’s somewhat of a playboy.” He had to add, ”I hate to use that word right now,” before his entourage caught on and started laughing. His small blue eyes vanished in a welter of wrinkles as he grinned.

Earlier this month at Harvard, where he was invited to meet with professors at the Kennedy School, the Governor picked up a couple of school ties because of a scene from ”Trading Places” in which Dan Aykroyd snootily mocked Eddie Murphy for wearing one. With gusto, Ventura, who barely attended college and was clearly moved to find himself taken seriously at the university, kept imitating Aykroyd’s line, ”Like he went to Hahhvahd.”

After he appeared on live television before a Harvard audience, Ventura hung around to chat with students. Such political appearances generally have a uniform choreography. A velvet rope separates the politician from the crowd, and he stays in motion so that he can ignore embarrassing questions or wackos as he reaches for the next hand. But Ventura just stood in place, rocking as though he could not quite contain his power. With a felt-tip pen borrowed from a student, he signed baseballs, tickets and copies of the Playboy magazine in which he had just precipitated his greatest public-relations crisis. He answered every question, without hesitation.

Q: If you were in a mosh pit, would you surf?

A: I’m probably the only candidate in any election who had mosh pits at his election party.

Q: What can be done about high-school violence?

A: Parenting.

Q: What about apathy among young voters?

A: There’s an old saying that I always say: If you don’t vote, don’t bitch.

Q: Is it hard for candidates to resist special interests?

A: If they don’t have name recognition, they have to buy it, and if they have to buy it, that’s selling your soul to rock-and-roll.

Q: What do you think of national health care?

A: I don’t like it. I think competition is good. Monopolies are good for a while, and then they become their own worst enemies.

With a condescending grin, one student asked Ventura what he made of school vouchers. The grin faded as Ventura responded with a lengthy warning against the dangers of privatizing public education.

Unlike the nonideologues, Ventura proudly calls himself a centrist, as do the other members of what is known as the ”Minnesota clique” to its Reform opponents. Asked what ”centrist” means, he says he is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but those labels only roughly approximate where he stands. They do not explain why he insists that gun control is the ability to ”put two rounds into the same hole from 25 meters” yet also opposes the death penalty.

Ventura seems to incorporate with unusual consistency what was always most appealing about the Reform Party’s message: an insistence on authenticity and accountability. It is his emphasis on accountability that explains his divergence from a core Reform Party stance, protectionism, that has always seemed philosophically at odds with the party’s calls for no-excuses responsibility. ”We shouldn’t shy away from our strength to compete — we should actually focus in on it, exploit it,” Ventura told me. When I asked him if he would like to see that part of the party’s platform changed, he shot me a puzzled look. ”Would I like to see the language change?” he repeated. ”I’d like to see the philosophy change.”

At Harvard, Ventura carried a photocopy of the Playboy interview in his suit pocket and pulled it out repeatedly, along with his wire-rimmed glasses, to argue that he had been quoted out of context. He did not back away from his support for legalizing drugs and prostitution. He dutifully repeated for every interviewer cynically seeking a sexy revelation — and television interviews with the Governor often seem like bearbaiting — that he had visited prostitutes before he was married. That tidbit, like most of the recent supposed surprises, was contained in his book. He insisted that he believed being ”weak minded,” as he described followers of organized religion, ”is not necessarily a detriment.” That sounded disingenuous until he said that he would apply the same adjective to his wife, who attends church.

Ventura also shares the typical Reformers’ deep suspicion of government generally and of representative democracy in particular. Just as American business has become fixated on ”disintermediation,” or cutting out layers of middlemen, Reformers want to eliminate as many layers as possible between voters and policy decisions. This explains the Reformers’ obsession with referendums and initiatives and Ventura’s drive to combine the two houses of the Minnesota Legislature into one.

For most Reformers, these suspicions of government shade off into dark conspiracy theories, which they also concoct about other party members. Ventura is no exception. He suspects that John F. Kennedy wanted to end the Vietnam War and so was killed by the military-industrial complex. He also suspects that Buchanan is being sent as a ”sacrificial lamb” into the Reform Party by the Republicans and the Democrats to destroy it. ”Print that one,” he urged me. ”I’ve seen it. They will band together. The two parties will band together to stop a third party.” Perhaps so, but they may not have to in this case. The Reformers are doing quite a job of carving themselves up on their own.

From shining pate to dimpled chin, Ventura dragged one hand down his face when asked how he would describe where the Reform Party stands today. When he drew his hand away, he was laughing. ”Probably in chaos,” he said, before growing serious. ”We’re troubled right now — there’s trouble in the ranks.” He laid the blame squarely on Dallas, on Ross Perot and Russell J. Verney, a close Perot ally who is to step down as party chairman at year’s end. Ventura accused them of ”simply not allowing the party to naturally grow beyond them — you know, the Reform Party’s always been kind of boxed in and been called Ross Perot’s party, and I’m starting to believe he believed the publicity.”

Despite Ventura’s pleas, Perot did not help him when he ran for Governor. ”I think there’s a jealousy factor,” Ventura said, ”that I’m successfully elected, and the focus of the Reform Party in the eyes of the media and the world all of a sudden shifted from Ross Perot to Jesse Ventura.”

For its part, the Dallas faction is in a rage with Ventura. Verney requested that he leave the party because of his comments in Playboy. ”I think he’s brought disgrace to the members of the Reform Party,” Verney told me. ”He’s lost his moral authority as a leader within the Reform Party.” Verney insisted that any animus flowed one way, from Minnesota. Perot, he said, ”is not battling with anyone over anything.”

Regardless of who is at fault, the upshot is that the Reform Party is entering a critical election torn by what is essentially a civil war.

To understand the roots of this dispute, with its dueling suspicions of Machiavellian maneuvering, it is helpful to think of the people around Ventura not as the Minnesota faction but as the Lamm faction. Ventura and his top strategists supported Richard D. Lamm, the former Democratic Governor of Colorado, in his run for the Reform Party nomination in 1996. In their view, Lamm was sandbagged by Perot, who after indicating — they thought — that he would not run, stepped into the race once Lamm announced his candidacy. Perot won the nomination, using what the Lamm people regard as dirty tricks. Perot wound up with 8 percent of the vote, compared with the 19 percent he won in 1992, when, in one of the great political miscalculations, the Bush campaign permitted him to appear in the debates.

Naturally, the Dallas camp has its own conspiratorial take on the struggle of ’96. From its perspective, Lamm was a spoiler dispatched to the Reform Party by the Democrats. ”Dick Lamm was one of the 938 close personal friends who slept in the Lincoln Bedroom,” Verney said. ”The sheets were barely cold when he decided to come over and run for the nomination. And all he did here was complain.”

Thomas J. D’Amore Jr., who was a senior Lamm adviser and is close to Weicker, sees a familiar pattern developing. According to this theory, Perot is keeping all options open while delighting in the chaos. ”It’s different players and a little more smoke this time, but it’s still Perot’s game,” he said. ”Perot will offer himself again at some late date as a savior in all this. There’s an echo here.”

Dean M. Barkley, one of Ventura’s top strategists and another Lamm supporter, expressed the same thought this way: ”I think Buchanan is the Dick Lamm of 2000.”

The candidates will have to clarify their intentions by early spring because of the Reform Party’s marathon nominating process. The party is now on the ballot in 20 states and expects to gain access in one more. According to its nominating rules, would-be candidates must get themselves on the ballot in the other states or demonstrate by July that they are making a ”good faith” effort to do so. To do that requires either a large number of die-hard volunteers or a large amount of money to gather tens of thousands of signatures around the country. The Minnesotans grumble that the nominating rules were stacked to favor a Perot candidacy because he has the money to hire signature-gatherers; seen in this light, Ventura’s interest in Trump takes on new coloration. Trump’s advisers say they think that the nomination would cost their man $20 million — $10 million to get on the ballot and another $10 million to win the vote. They say he has already put three signature-collecting firms on retainer. Rather than money, Buchanan has his pitchfork brigade to rely on, but having seen what Steve Forbes was able to do in 1996, he is clearly worried about the depth of Trump’s pockets.

The Dallas camp argues that this nominating system is a sure means of weeding out dilettantes. Verney says that a candidate could start as late as March 14 and still gather the necessary signatures, but he predicts that would cost $6 million. With more time that cost would drop slightly, he says, and with enough volunteers it would plummet.

Once the candidates are approved, the choice of a nominee is as freewheeling as the preceding process is pinched. Ballots are mailed out to every Reform Party member, every person who simply signed one of the petitions and literally any other registered voter who wants one. The Reformers view this as a chance to beef up their membership roles, but it also provides an opening to a candidate to essentially stuff the ballot box.

Perot’s intentions are a source of worry to the potential Reform Party candidates, but they would not discuss their concerns on the record for fear of alienating the party’s founder. Pat Choate, who is widely respected within the party, said that Perot has expressed no interest in offering himself again. He is approaching 70, Choate said, and his family does not want him to run. Further, Choate said, ”he’s been so demonized, it’s hard for him to rise above 30 percent.” But, he said, if there were a ”national emergency,” like a war or a plunge in the Dow to 2000, ”he would be available.”

Because Choate is close to Perot, his efforts to recruit Buchanan have been widely seen as Perot backed. But Perot has kept a careful distance from Buchanan, not even speaking to him by telephone. That distance could permit Perot to enter the race later on the pretext of saving his party from the religious right. Or it could be just what Verney says it is, high-minded detachment. ”At the moment his position is still that he is going to remain silent, and that silence cannot be interpreted as implied support of somebody,” he said. ”It is simply silence.” He added, ”The decision will be made by the members of the Reform Party, and at this point Ross wants that decision made free of any influence from him.”

Verney did not rule out a bid for the nomination by Perot: ”He has not said one way or another whether he will be a candidate in 2000.”

For all the grumbling in the ranks that his time was past, that he needed to move over for Jesse Ventura, Perot was received with wild ovations when he addressed the national convention in July. He twanged away for 38 minutes, offering his characteristic blend of plain talk, common-sense criticisms, vague prescriptions, paranoia and weird metaphors. (”Why doesn’t somebody put that in the paper and just pull that skunk up by the tail and let everybody see it?” he said of the poor condition of the military.)

Tellingly, almost the first thing out of his mouth was an announcement that he was being broadcast on C-Span and CNN. He often stared into the cameras, where his party lives, as he addressed the rather paltry crowd of 400 delegates. By the four-minute mark came the first chants of ”We want Ross!” Perot never even mentioned Jesse Ventura, and without naming him, he bashed Dick Lamm for having slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. ”I’ve been told that the team that worked for this person is back again,” he warned. ”Now, so there you are, O.K.?”

He concluded with a formulation familiar from his previous campaigns, insisting that he would leave it strictly to the members to decide what he should do. ”The thing I want you to understand,” he said, ”is that as long as I am helpful to the organization, I am certainly happy to help and participate in any constructive way.”

As moved as some delegates were by the founder’s appearance, the convention’s most poignant moment came later that evening when a group of actual, declared Presidential candidates gathered in a loose, shy semicircle. These were the candidates you have never heard of, and probably never will: Reform Party members with a particular grievance or cause or a touch of Napoleonic fervor. They spoke out in the hall to a gaggle of smirking reporters and a handful of delegates. None were rich or famous, and so the convention had voted earlier in the day not to permit them to address it.

And so it turns out that you probably should not seek the Reform Party nomination, after all. The sad truth is that even for the Reformers, any boy can’t be President. The party will not be interested in you unless you meet certain criteria, which the news media insist on as well. (Note the failure to name the minor candidates above.) You have to be famous like Buchanan or rich like Trump or — like Trump — both.

Some people who would make effective Reform Party candidates are already running, in other parties. To the extent that they make their own races more provocative — by presenting themselves as authentic insurgents fed up with the system — they will diminish the value and attraction of the Reformers. Bill Bradley is one of them. A more potent choice would be Senator John McCain, the maverick Arizona Republican who has made a crusade of tightening the campaign-finance system. Ventura tried to recruit him, but McCain wasn’t interested. ”His natural move should be with the Reform Party,” Ventura said.

Perhaps it should be. But right now it surely is not. The unseriousness of the Reformers — exactly what gets them so much attention — has reached the point that it is eclipsing the seriousness of their stated purpose, to root out political corruption and instill fiscal discipline. Too many Reformers seem content with the circus and the nuts. They have turned out to be easily distracted from their mission by celebrity sweepstakes, picayune platform details and backbiting. Despite its worthy goals, the party has always functioned more like a cult of personality, and now it has altogether too much of it for anybody’s good.

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